Australia Wants Quick Resolution To Rio Tinto Case

SHANGHAI (AP) -- A visiting Australian state leader said he appealed to Chinese officials Tuesday to quickly resolve the case of a Rio Tinto Ltd. manager accused of espionage, warning that delays could harm business ties.

Premier Colin Barnett of West Australia said he made the appeal to Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng, who promised to convey it to officials in charge of the case of Australian citizen Stern Hu, the manager of Rio's Chinese iron ore business.

Hu and three Chinese co-workers were detained July 5 during contentious iron ore price talks and state media say they are accused of bribing Chinese steel company employees to get information on China's negotiating stance.

"Dealing with it quickly is important," Barnett told reporters. "If the case continues to drag on and becomes more and more controversial, then it has the potential to cause a rift in the relationship.

"People will be apprehensive, less inclined to sign contracts and agreements. And I think that would be a great tragedy," he said.

Also Tuesday, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said he hopes to discuss Hu's case with China's foreign minister when they both attend a conference this week in Thailand.

The Chinese government says the Rio employees are accused of stealing state secrets but has released no details. Reports say investigators found confidential information from Chinese steel producers on a computer seized from Rio's Shanghai office.

Australian authorities say they have received no details from China of the case against Hu and his co-workers.

Last week, Rio rejected bribery allegations against its employees and has said it knows of no evidence to support spying charges.

Barnett, the West Australia leader, is on a nine-day visit to China to promote business ties. The state is a major mining center and accounts for more than 60 percent of Australia's exports to China, the country's biggest foreign market.

"I will be stressing that Chinese investment is very welcome in Australia and very welcome in Western Australia," Barnett said.